I’ve struggled with some form of anxiety or other for most of my life, although I didn’t really realise that until my early 20s. The problem got much worse when I moved to London to do a Master’s, and that also triggered a major depressive episode. For that year every aspect of my life felt impossible; I struggled to eat, I barely left my room, and somehow I needed to fit the workload of a pretty intense MSc course in around regular anxiety attacks and long bouts of sobbing uncontrollably for no reason. Looking back now, it’s clear I was in the midst of a severe mental health crisis, but I didn’t seek help until I finished my course and moved home. I had 6 months of CBT, started a new job, and slowly began to get better.
Ten years on and the improvement is mind blowing. I do still find some things difficult but anxiety rarely stops me from doing something nowadays. I also haven’t had another major depressive episode since London, although I do occasionally have bad days or weeks. This has been happening more often than usual during lockdown, but one positive thing that came out of my experience is that now I have coping techniques to help me deal with it when it does.
With lockdown prompting much discussion on social media about mental health, I’ve been reflecting on how advice on Twitter often contradicts my own experiences, and how this could be harmful to someone experiencing mental illness – which is not the same as feeling a bit stressed. I’m going to share some of the things that do and don’t work for me, and a few things I’ve learned during my recovery journey.
Routine is for other people
One of the most common pieces of advice I’ve read about working from home is to maintain normal hours and stick to a routine. I’m sure this is helpful to many, but for me on a bad day/week it’s too much pressure to be OK and able to focus at specific times. I take breaks when I’m struggling to concentrate and let myself recharge, unless I have an essential task to do (meeting, deadline etc.). If I’ve had a chunk of time off and need to catch up on some work, I do this on evenings or weekends once I feel better. Social media may brand this as unhealthy, but it works for me and seems more efficient than staring aimlessly at a screen for hours and worrying about how little I’m getting done.
Staying connected vs. hiding in a nest made of very soft blankets
Every article about mental health seems to recommend reaching out to friends and family and staying connected. This is great advice, and definitely does help me a lot when I’m able to do this. But when my mental health takes a dive past a certain point I just can’t face dealing with other human beings, no matter how much I love them. I do still stay in touch with a few people by WhatsApp, but no face-to-face or phone conversation. This is OK. If you need a bit of alone time, you are allowed to defy the advice of The Internet (at least in the short-term – it’s probably best not to become a full-on hermit and live in the woods). I usually retreat into a blanket nest on the sofa and wait for the worst of it to pass, then do something sociable to perk me up a day or two later.
This brings me quite nicely to my next point, which is how to wait for it to pass. An acute anxiety attack or depressive day can feel unbearable and all-consuming, not to mention completely exhausting. I’ve found that the best way to cope with this is simply to distract myself as much as possible. Gentle comedy TV works best for me, but films, games or a good book can do the trick as well. It has to be something that will absorb my attention but requires zero concentration – and nothing too dark! I acknowledge my feelings, accept them, then proceed to fill every waking minute with escapism so I don’t have time to dwell on them.
Exercise is not my friend
The majority of people I know say that exercise is a lifesaver so this is controversial, but the idea of getting my heart rate up during an episode is deeply traumatic. I think I’m in the minority here because I have the cardiovascular fitness of an old turnip and going for a run makes me think I might die. A lot of my anxiety is actually health related, so feeling like my heart is going to explode while I projectile vomit is not great for that. Obviously I’m not advising anyone to do less exercise, especially if you enjoy it, but if you happen to be a human blob person like me, or just can’t find the motivation to get those trainers on when you’re feeling down, that is OK. You don’t need to feel guilty for retreating to your sofa nest (or doing a different activity) until you feel better.
Yoga and meditation
Many people find that meditation or the meditative aspects of yoga help with anxiety or depression. My experience is quite limited, but I’ve found that these practices can actually make my anxiety worse. They don’t hold my attention well and often encourage focus on the body, which means I notice every twinge and start obsessing over whether I might be getting ill, triggering a wave of anxiety. My anxiety manifests as physical symptoms like nausea, which can be very severe and debilitating, so this can turn into a vicious circle of unpleasantness. I’ve accepted that this approach doesn’t work well with my particular brand of anxiety, and that’s fine by me.
Believing in your own resilience
Something nice that came from my negative experience is that is taught me how resilient the human mind is. Even if we don’t notice while in crisis, even if it feels like we can’t cope with the most basic of everyday tasks, we have the ability to bounce back. Often this requires medical intervention of some kind and a lot of hard work and time, but the capability is there. Now that I’ve been through this, I have a kind of confident optimism that I could do it again, if I had to. I hold onto this thought when I’m having a bad day and it gives me perspective – I know that what I’m feeling is temporary and ultimately I will be OK.
My hot take in a nutshell
What’s interesting is that a lot of the things I’ve said don’t work for me do lift my mood on a normal day, they just don’t work when I’m feeling anxious or depressed. And vice versa, making a nest and hiding in it wouldn’t be a healthy way to live my life normally, but does help me to recover from a bad patch more quickly. I think there’s an important distinction to make between wellbeing – normal everyday mood-boosting – and coping with mental health problems, i.e. a medical disorder. What’s good for my general wellbeing won’t fix my anxiety disorder and how I cope with a down day wouldn’t make me happy if I did it as a hobby.
The main points here are that everyone is different, and it’s OK if what works for somebody else doesn’t work the same way for you. Here I’ve shared some of my own personal experiences, but yours is likely to be very different and I think we should embrace that individuality. Social media portrays an image of wellbeing that applauds some behaviours and vilifies others, but the world is not that black and white. Whilst well-intentioned, these messages may be harmful to someone struggling with their mental health who feels they don’t fit into that image. It’s too easy to feel inadequate because anxiety messed up your schedule, or because you took a bubble bath and stroked a cat but still feel miserable. Coping with anxiety and depression is about survival, not Instagrammable “wellness”, and no one should ever feel guilty for doing what they need to get through a bad day.
Dr Sarah Ryan is a Alzheimer’s Society Research Fellow at the University of Manchester. Sarah has worked on the molecular and cellular mechanisms underlying neurodegeneration in FTD for the past few years, with particular focus on C9orf72. More recently she has developed an interest in the role of microglia in FTD, and how the immune system contributes to disease pathogenesis. Outside the lab, Sarah enjoy public engagement, hiking, playing board games and is well known for throwing a great fancy dress party.